Ten years ago today, the Cold War ended. On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall, perhaps the ultimate symbol of the world’s division into two blocs and the oppression on the communist side of the Iron Curtain, was breached. Thousands of people mounted the graffiti-scarred concrete to dance, drink or just peer across the barbed wire, as East German security guards looked on bewildered. In the decade since, many hopes have flared and faded; amid a daily diet of news of conflict and atrocities in far-off places, the world sometimes seems no safer than it was before. There has been change, not all of it for the better. But if the world is not whole, it is healing.
The Berlin Wall became irrelevant the day the East German government announced it would ease border restrictions. Within hours, thousands of “Ossis,” as the East Germans are known, crossed to the West, and their footsteps erased a regime that had relied on brute force to survive. The much-feared Eastern invasion of West Germany signaled, not the beginning of a war, but the end of one.
While U.S. President George Bush was careful not to take credit for “defeating” the Soviet Union, others were not so reticent. Conservatives in the United States beat their chests and applauded former President Ronald Reagan for forcing the communists to spend themselves into bankruptcy in a fruitless attempt to match U.S. defense outlays. Others credited European leaders, who pushed for detente and the much-maligned Helsinki accords, both of which obliged Eastern-bloc leaders to open their doors to Western cultural influences and to respect human rights. Those two forces, argue the Europeans, eroded the Soviet empire from within.
Still others credit former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. He told the Eastern European gerontocrats that they were on their own, that the military might of the Soviet Union would no longer support their sclerotic regimes. Mr. Gorbachev says he wanted to reform the Soviet system, not destroy it, but concedes that he fell victim to this illusion just as his similarly inclined predecessors, Nikita Khrushchev and Alexei Kosygin, had done. For his efforts, Mr. Gorbachev today is reviled by many Russians. They consider him responsible for the ills that have descended upon their country since the end of the Cold War and for depriving them of the international status they feel is rightly theirs.
Oddly, it is not Russians alone who sometimes seem to yearn for the certainties of the Cold War. Behind Washington’s warnings of the dangers posed by “rogue states” and “the new terrorism,” and lurking in its complaints about the burdens it bears as it leads the world to freedom, freighted with ungrateful allies, there is a wistfulness for the old days when life was simple — black vs. white, good against evil.
If the world somehow seemed safer or more predictable then, it was only because two superpowers were locked in a nuclear embrace, paralyzed by the logic of mutually assured destruction. Allies and proxies were constrained by fears that conflict could spiral out of control. The Cold War’s “comforting” certainties were the assurances of the straitjacket. Those who celebrate the military spending that broke the Soviet Union blithely overlook the times those same arsenals pushed the world to the brink.
The suspicions have not evaporated, but they have diminished. Nations still disagree, but the nature of the disputes is different. There is little, if any, fear of events getting out of control — except perhaps in South Asia, where the governments of India and Pakistan are doing their best to re-create a mini-Cold War in their corner of their world.
The Cold War’s end has given millions of people a freedom they could once only dream about. The adjustment process is proving more difficult than expected; the legacy of a half-century of oppression is understandably heavy. Yet there is immense potential for those millions, as well as for the millions more whose lives have escaped the Cold War’s long shadow. Ideology, and the military priorities that followed in its wake, no longer dominate political decisions. Governments can now put the needs of their citizens first, rather than those of their militaries. And as the East German government learned, lessening international tension means that citizens can now demand more from their leaders. There is still a long way to go, but we should recognize the progress that has been made.
No one praises the Cold War; that is too perverse. Still, the longings exist, revealing themselves only when some tyrant-in-waiting slips, such as when Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic praised the old Berlin as his model for Sarajevo. Fences may make good neighbors, but the wall was a monstrosity.
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